Hussein Mousavi is presented as the reform candidate for Iran. One of Juan Cole's points is that reform candidates have gotten large proportions of the vote in the past, so it indicates fraud that Mousavi did not get a large proportion of the vote.
Westerners such as Cole have this idea that "reform" is the same thing as "open up to the West". Reform is popular in Iran. Making the changes the United States would like to see Iran make is not popular in Iran.
Between Mousavi, who defended Rafsanjani, Iran's icon of corruption and Ahmadinejad who broke protocol and named Rafsanjani and his family as examples of the corruption he offers an alternative to, Ahmadinejad is the reformer. The truth is that Ahmadinejad has not enriched himself. The little details such as his simple choices in clothing, his bringing lunch from home, his meetings with any citizen who wants to meet him, his personally visiting every province twice, and many others all combine to form a picture of a man who is really trying to make government improve the lives of Iranians.
For Westerners, that is outweighed by the Holocaust. In the debate Mousavi asks why Ahmadinejad mentioned the Holocaust. He didn't ask why Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust, because Ahmadinejad has never denied the Holocaust, at least in the sense of asserting that Jews were not killed by Hitler or that a certain number of Jews or other people was or was not victimized by the Nazis. Ahmadinejad defended his mentioning of the Holocaust, and making the points he repeatedly makes, which are that people are imprisoned for expressing doubt in the story, as if that story is comparable to laws against blasphemy against religion; that the story is used to justify the victimization of Palestinians; and that the proper people to punish for the Holocaust are not the Palestinians who today are starving in Gaza or who were displaced in 1948.
But regardless of one's views on the Holocaust, a politician who is savvy enough about Western media to know to refrain from saying the word "Holocaust" except in the context of how necessary it makes defending Israel's security is not necessarily, by that fact alone, a reformer in the Iranian context.
From there we go to the idea that Mousavi is an economic reformer. The reform Westerners believe Mousavi will bring about is reformed economic relations with the West. This idea is on the line between naive missing an important point and insulting to the intelligence of its audience.
Iran does not have sanctions against any Western country except Israel. Any US company, by Iranian law, is free to trade with any Iranian company, to compete for Iranian business, to invest in Iranian resources. The West, especially the US has sanctions against Iran. These sanctions are not in place because the West disapproves of Iran's economic system. There is no particular way in which the Iranian system is more hostile to US investment than the Russian or Chinese system. These sanctions are in place because Iran rejects the legitimacy of Israel, and in sanctioning Iran the US sets an example warning Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries to be restrained in their opposition to Israel, a warning these countries heed, against the sensibilities of their own people.
Westerners have an annoying habit of discussing the damage done by economic sanctions as "mismanagement" not only in the case of Iran, but also in the cases of Cuba, Zimbabwe and others. We are to believe that the very publicly increased sanctions on Iran during Ahmadinejad's tenure, which are imposed with that explicitly stated aim of putting pressure on the Iranian economy to convince them to relinquish any right to enrich uranium without US permission, have no impact on the rate of inflation or unemployment in Iran, that is purely the result of Ahmadinejad's mismanagement.
And then, we never see examples of this supposed mismanagment. Iran is not the only country that provides health care or free education, it is not the only country that subsidizes gas or other staples. There is no specific policy that is discussed openly that Mousavi can change to improve Iran's economic performance.
In order to get improved economic relations with the United States, Mousavi would have to, at least as of now, relinquish any right to a domestic supply of enriched uranium and/or adopt policies as accomodating of Israel as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Both of these possible policy changes have nearly no support in Iran. Refusing to adopt these policies is, unbelievably, described by Western sources as economic mismanagment. It is ridiculous and it is insulting.
In an Iranian context, it is possible for a politician to be a reformer even if Western observers do not perceive that politician as relatively malleable on issues such as Israel and the nuclear program.
There may be a serious lapse in communication around the term reform, relating to Iranian politics. Iran's voters seem to believe reform means act against the corruption that has grown in certain circles of Iran's political establishment. Reform means end the opportunities of the clerics to enrich themselves and their families through their political connections. Reform certainly means to refuse to take part in the project of using politics for personal gain. By the standards of Iran's voters, all indications are that Ahmadinejad was the reformer.
To Westerners reform means to be or at least seem more sensitive to Western concerns about Israel's security, which could lead to greater Western economic cooperation. A politician who gave that impression could retain the mantle of reformer even while aligning himself with the single most notorious personification of status-quo corruption in the country.
Not only is it not unbelievable, as some Western observers claim, that Ahmadinejad has gotten a lot of votes from Iranians who previously voted for reformers, there is a real sense that it is to be expected.